- The Chorus movie (2004) review: Officially “inspired” by the 1945 Noël-Noël star vehicle A Cage of Nightingales – while also owing much to later fare like To Sir with Love, Dead Poets Society, and Music of the Heart – Christophe Barratier’s feature film debut is an old-fashioned, shamelessly sentimental crowd pleaser.
The Chorus movie review: Newcomer Christophe Barratier has come up with an old-fashioned + syrupy commercial hit
A gigantic hit in France, Christophe Barratier’s feature film debut, The Chorus / Les choristes, is the most recent cinematic incarnation of that age-old story about a dedicated teacher who, through firmness, kindness, and understanding – mostly the latter two – tames the savage hearts of his/her pupils. As an added heart-tugging bonus, the boarding-school teacher in Barratier’s The Chorus movie brings some soul-healing music into the lives of his charges. And what a difference that makes!
Not coincidentally, the teacher (played by Gérard Jugnot) is reminiscent of the one actor/co-screenwriter Noël-Noël brought to life in Jean Dréville’s A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols back in 1945 (itself sharing elements with Leo McCarey’s 1944 Hollywood hit Going My Way). The Chorus, in fact, is largely a reboot – with the action changed from the early 1930s to the late 1940s – of the real-life-inspired and Best Original Story Academy Award-nominated drama.
And that’s how 21st-century audiences – hungry for a large serving of cotton-candy cinema drenched in syrup and with powdered sugar sprinkled all over it – have been able to enjoy watching the power of choir singing save a rowdy bunch of prospective mobsters, corrupt politicians, and serial killers.
The Chorus movie begins with two middle-aged men, the renowned French conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced the film) and an old friend, Pépinot (Didier Flamand), as they’re brought together by the death of their former music teacher. Before you can say “flashback,” they start reminiscing about their days at a rural boarding school for boys.
In 1949, unemployed music teacher Clément Mathieu arrives at the strangely named school Fond de l’Étang (“Bottom of the Pond”) to work as a teacher-cum-supervisor. The students are a bunch of quasi-murderous hooligans who, according to the school’s strict disciplinarian headmaster Rachin (François Berléand), will behave themselves only if they’re either beaten with a stick or put in solitary confinement. Preferably, both.
Mathieu, however, has different ideas. Although he has been warned that the boys are monsters who just happen to look like human beings, he takes a liking to them, becoming particularly fond of the gifted, angelic-looking Pierre (Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc choir singer Jean-Baptiste Maunier) and the young orphan Pépinot (Maxence Perrin, Jacques Perrin’s real-life son), who every weekend waits in vain at the school gate for a visit from his parents.
Once he starts teaching the boys to sing, Mathieu finds himself mesmerized by Pierre’s heavenly voice. The boys, for their part, learn to trust and respect their teacher.
Inevitably, problems arise when Rachin begins to feel threatened by Mathieu’s success and a singularly troublesome youth arrives at the school.
Appropriate directorial touch & top-notch acting missing
For treacle like this to –at least partially – work, one of several elements must be present:
- A screenplay featuring humor/wit and/or pathos, such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s for John Schlesinger’s more personalized Madame Sousatzka, in which Shirley MacLaine stars as a private tutor.
- One or more solid performances. Examples include MacLaine as the tutorial Madame and Meryl Streep as real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari in Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart.
- The right directorial touch; e.g., Tay Garnett’s in the charmingly nostalgic Cheers for Miss Bishop, starring a pitch-perfect Martha Scott.
- A singing/crying Lulu (“A friend who taught me right from wrong…”) as seen/heard in James Clavell’s To Sir with Love, with a bad karma’ed Sidney Poitier (see Blackboard Jungle) teaching social etiquette to lowlives at an East London school.
‘Au prof, avec amour’
Regrettably, Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Martha Scott, and Lulu are nowhere to be seen (or heard) in The Chorus movie.
Though schooled veterans, neither Gérard Jugnot nor François Berléand are up to the “something extra needed” task, while Barratier’s direction and screenplay – co-written with Philippe Lopes-Curval – proudly replace wit and pathos with juvenile antics and bathos.
And that’s why this musicalized Au prof, avec amour will appeal only to those who like their movies dripping with schmaltz.
Now, considering The Chorus’ blockbuster status in a number of countries, there are millions of such filmgoers out there. These certainly will not be disappointed. If you’re one of them, just make sure to check your blood-sugar level once the final credits start rolling.
The Chorus / Les choristes (2004)
Director: Christophe Barratier.
Screenplay: Christophe Barratier & Philippe Lopes-Curval.
Inspired by the 1945 motion picture A Cage of Nightingales / La cage aux rossignols, written by Georges Chaperot (story), Noël-Noël, and René Wheeler.
Cast: Gérard Jugnot. François Berléand. Jean-Baptiste Maunier. Kad Merad. Marie Bunel. Jacques Perrin. Maxence Perrin. Didier Flamand. Grégory Gatignol. Théodule Carré-Cassaigne. Thomas Blumenthal. Jean-Paul Bonnaire. Cyril Bernicot. Simon Fargeot. Philippe du Janerand.
Cinematography: Jean-Jacques Bouhon, Dominique Gentil, and Carlo Varini. Film Editing: Yves Deschamps. Music: Bruno Coulais. Production Design: François Chauvaud. Producers: Arthur Cohn, Nicolas Mauvernay, and Jacques Perrin.
“The Chorus Movie (2004) Review” notes
Highest-paid French actor
 According to Jean-Yves Guérin and Léna Lutaud’s Figaro Enterprises article “L’Argent des Acteurs,” The Chorus movie actor and associate producer Gérard Jugnot earned €5.45 million (approx. $6.8 million) in 2004, making him the highest-paid French actor that year. (Jean Reno was the runner-up.) A large chunk of that money came from Jugnot’s participation in The Chorus.
As per L’Express, as a result of several contractual agreements Jugnot will have to wait about 10 years to receive the total amount of his earnings.
If you liked “The Chorus Movie (2004) Review: Old-Fashioned + Unabashedly Saccharine Heartstring Tugger,” check out:
- “‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ Movie (2003) Review.”
- “‘Ray’ Movie (2004) Review: Prosaic Ray Charles Biopic Takes Crowd-Pleasing Route.”
- “‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Movie (2004) Review: Carrey Mugfest.”
- “‘Bad Education’: Pedro Almodóvar Excellent ‘Gay Film Noir’.”
- “‘Sleepless in Seattle’ Movie (1993) Review: Popular Romantic Comedy Lacks Romance & Humor.”
The Chorus movie cast and crew information via Cineuropa and other sources.
Gérard Jugnot and Jean-Baptiste Maunier The Chorus movie images: Pathé Distribution.
“The Chorus Movie (2004) Review: Old-Fashioned + Unabashedly Saccharine Heartstring Tugger” last updated in April 2021.